Why Is Mitt Romney Going to Poland?

The erstwhile Eastern Bloc nation has a dim view of Obama and a connection to a lot of voters in the American heartland.

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Mitt Romney's foreign tour this week and next takes him to the United Kingdom, Israel, and Poland. The first two destinations make obvious political sense: Britain has a conservative government, the Olympics, and a lot of wealthy American bankers; Israel features more wealthy GOP donors and an opportunity to highlight President Obama's supposedly Israel-hostile policies to both American Jews and evangelical Christians. But what about Poland? Of all the countries on the map, why go there?

It turns out Poland is far from a random choice -- it's a destination with both geopolitical and domestic resonance for Romney. Here are some reasons his campaign likely chose it:

  • Missile defense: In 2009, the Obama administration scrapped George W. Bush's plans for a missile-defense shield in eastern Europe, infuriating the Poles. To make matters worse, the move leaked in the American press before the Polish government was notified. "Part of the Republican critique of the president's foreign policy has been that he hasn't stood up for our allies, and that was brought up quite a lot with the way the missile defense (cancellation) was rolled out," said James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The argument is that this left our Polish friends high and dry." Largely because of this issue, Poland is one of the least Obama-friendly countries in Europe: Just 50 percent of Poles say they have confidence in the American president, down from 62 percent in 2009.
  • Russia: Bush's proposed missile-defense shield was part of a general posture of hostility toward Russia, one that Obama has attempted to dial back with his "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations. Romney would take a much tougher line on Russia -- he has called it "without question our number-one geopolitical foe." This stance -- embraced by many American neoconservatives -- is likely to find many friends in Poland, where the political culture is dominated by residual anti-Soviet, and therefore anti-Russian, sentiment.
  • Echoes of Reagan: While in Poland, Romney is scheduled to meet with former Polish president and Solidarity hero Lech Walesa. To American voters not affiliated with right-wing think tanks -- especially those over a certain age -- it's an unmistakable reminder of Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Iron Curtain. "Poland is a testament to the cause of freedom Ronald Reagan was associated with," Lindsay said. "It's optically, thematically, substantively consistent for Romney on that score." To hear Romney and some of his advisers tell it, the Cold War is still under way: Earlier this year, the candidate stumbled and referred to "the Soviets, excuse me, Russia;" an adviser, former Navy secretary John Lehman, told reporters on a conference call that "the Soviets" were "pushing into the Arctic;" and another Romney surrogate, Rich Williamson, just this week warned against "the Soviet Union."
  • Polish-American voters: Romney may be hoping to score points with American voters of Polish extraction, who happen to be concentrated in many of the Midwestern states that could be crucial to his campaign. As of the 2000 Census, the state with the largest proportion of Polish voters was Wisconsin, with a nearly 10 percent Polish-American population; Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire were also in the top 10, and Ohio had more than 400,000 Polish Americans. These white ethnic Catholic voters are the classic Reagan Democrats who have soured on Obama, and whom Romney is trying to capture.
  • Where else would he go? Romney's stump speech routinely trashes Europe and European-style economic management as an extension of his critique of Obama's big-government ideology. (Given that about 90 percent of Romney's standard remarks focus on either asserting American superiority over the rest of the world or criticizing Obama -- which he's said he won't do while abroad -- it's hard to imagine what he says in a foreign speech at all.) If you think the British press has been rough on him so far, with headlines like "MITT THE TWIT" just for using the word "disconcerting," imagine how he'd be received in Germany, where Obama has an 87 percent approval rating, or France, where it's 86 percent. In fact, the only European country polled by Pew with a dimmer view of Obama than Poland was Greece -- and there are some obvious reasons not to campaign in Greece these days.